April 15, 2012

Connected and Lonely

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Twenty-eight percent of 18 to 34 year olds check Facebook before getting out of bed. First of all, are you kidding me? We’ve replaced Snuggles the bear and beanie babies with a flat, rectangular, oddly warm and decidedly personality-less amalgamation of plastic and conducting materials. Who the hell made that trade? And if stuffed animals aren’t your thing anymore, ever heard of a book?Facebook, at least judging by the numbers, runs our life. And the numbers are astounding: nearly a Billion users worldwide, more than half of whom check their accounts at least once a day. In October, November and December of last year we posted 2.7 billion likes and comments on the site. Per Day. And if that isn’t enough, in the U.S., users spend an average of seven hours a month on the site: That is three and a half full days per year or three full weeks throughout your whole college career. Three full weeks of sleepless Facebook snooping, posting, liking, commenting, status-updating, photo-uploading, timeline-developing and interacting with other people’s fabricated online personas. Which brings me to my second point: Are we really surprised that loneliness is now seen by many medical experts as an epidemic? People today have fewer confidants, fewer close friends and spend more time alone than in any previous decade. Directly correlated to loneliness: increased levels of stress hormones, higher likelihood of depression and altered processes of DNA transcription. Translation: We should be doing everything we can to avoid loneliness.Of course, social networks are not the only cause of this “epidemic.” Many technologies and developments over the past century have led to more time alone: telephones, cars, suburbia, television, have all in some ways contributed to the well-documented “fragmentation” of modern society. Astute observers will also note that time alone is not necessarily the same as feeling lonely. Introverts, after all, are not doomed to misery. Loneliness does not have to do with the numbers of interactions people have as much as it has to do with the meaning of those interactions.  It is here that technological advances have exerted their grip. Meaningful interaction, perhaps unsurprisingly, is often a stand-in for face to face interactions that cultivate friendships, and that provide opportunities for confiding. Over the the last half century we have had to create whole professions — life coaches and mental-health counselors are just two examples — to provide people with those confidants. Social interaction is now a service we pay lots of money for. Modern society has outsourced meaningful interactions to professionals and has led to our isolating ourselves from the family members, friends and neighbors, who before might have provided such support. So why pick on Facebook and social networking?  Why bother to distinguish it from any other technology of modern society? Well, because Facebook is built on relationships, interactions, sharing with others. As their motto puts it: “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.” And it does. We can now connect and stay connected with thousands more people than we used to be able to. And every time I post what I did last night I am sharing it with hundreds if not thousands of people. But do these really count as meaningful interactions? Sure, there is the ability to post on a friend’s wall, to organize an event where people will then interact face to face, to chat with a friend on Facebook chat. But many of Facebook’s features allow or even demand a sort of perpetual self-promotion. One where your life is perpetually perfect, forever fulfilled; where everything is worthy of some LOLcat exclamatory or smiley face, where you are encouraged to participate in a happiness arms race.And, well, beyond the occasional fml (or to twitterize it: #fml) social networks don’t provide much space to honestly discuss and reveal your feelings; not only what’s gone well, what you’re elated about but also what’s difficult, personal, vulnerable in your life. Connections aren’t bonds. While Facebook perhaps isn’t advertising itself as a place to engage in meaningful social interaction, given the amount of time we spend on it, the number of people who interact on it, we should consider how it affects our ability and willingness to do so. As Sherry Turkle, professor of Computer Culture at MIT puts it in her book Alone Together: “The ties we form through the internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy.”Waking up in the morning and being told that you are supposed to be happy doesn’t allow much space for honest relationships, either with others or with yourself. So, it might be time to wake up, get out of bed and look in a real mirror; to consider how it is that Facebook is useful but also how it is ultimately deeply limited. And then log on.

Harry DiFrancesco is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at hdifrancesco@cornellsun.com. Stirring the Pot appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Harry DiFrancesco

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